It was cold, bitterly cold. The winters always were . Zlata remembered when she was able to handle the cold. Those were easier times, times when Zarko was still around. His presence was missed, but there was nothing that she could do. He was her crutch for most of her life, but now that he was gone, she had no one to help her hold her own.
Zarko. He was killed by the Ustashe; he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most people were in those days. It was a civil war in a country that never would see peace—a civil war where ninety percent of the people lived at peace and ten percent were at war, dragging the innocent ninety percent into it just to prove how right their views were. Who was right? Who was wrong? Simple—they were all wrong.
All she had was herself to get through life; her mother was lying ill in bed in their wood, plank and mud home three kilometers from where she stood now. Her father died five years ago; he was killed by the Ustashe, just like Zarko. With no male to help them in the home, times became tougher. Zlata became the one who took care of everything; she was the man and she was the woman at the age of thirteen. Life was not easy.
She was on her way to the nearest store to her home. It was a good four and a half kilometer walk. She had walked briskly for almost an hour; it was still another twenty minutes until she would reach it. Frostbite was starting to set in on her toes, but plod on she must. Vinegar and some cloths were needed to heal her mother's gout.
Memories flooded back to her of how life was so easy when she was a child; how birthdays were so pleasant with the luscious vanilla cakes and crempita that her mom would buy. Birthdays came and went after the tragedy; her brother’s was the saddest of all, marked with mourning and grief for a whole week afterwards. The deaths of her brother and her father had nearly killed Zlata's mother. She never took care of herself anymore, never cared what she looked like, what she ate, and how she kept the house. All Zlata could do was watch her mother waste away; a tired manequin unable to please the audience any more.
At one point, Zlata's mother, Lilja was known in the village as a beauty queen. Her looks surpassed all of the women in the district and was courted by many of the men in the village. It was disappointing, then, to the single men of the village when they saw that Lilja only had eyes for Ivica, Zlata's father. Ivica was a very handsome, tall man with sparkling deep blue eyes and dark wavy hair. His ever cheery face greeted all who gazed on him, and his good looks kept all from being displeased. Everyone always said 2lata looked like her father – a splitting image with long wavy hair and blue eyes. Whenever she looked at her reflection, she always remembered his sweet smile and how he would say, “Oh my darling sweet daughter,” and how he would hug her and kiss heron the cheek. How she missed him so!
Ivica was a tailor by trade and had clients come to the village as far away as Zagreb which was a good twenty-four hour train ride and a day's walk from the village. He had planned to move the family into Zagreb one day so the children would not have to walk so far to school and he would make more money from the city crowd then with the townspeople. People in the city were willing to pay the extra dollars to get a well made pair of shoes that would last them more than the average factory shoe.
These were wonderful thoughts, but they would never come to be. The country was unstable and each district was at odds with each other. The Ustashe were becoming predominant, and the war of words became something that was not uncommon in the villages where Zlata and her family lived. Ivica became a part of these words and his own words went a bit too far. They bit at the hearts of some of the men in the surrounding villages and these few men that Ivica had tredded on, swore to teach him a lesson. And they did. They had ties to dark enemies, to the Ustashe, and through these people, caused Zlata , her mother and brother much grief. One night, five years previously, their back door was broken down, and five men stomped through their four room house, and went after their prey. It seemed they knew exactly where to go. They headed straight for Ivica and Lilja's bedroom and slammed through the door. Since the door of the room was right across Zlata and Zarko's room, they were able to view exactly what happened through the crack between the door and the doorpost. Zlata and Zarko saw three men bare down on Ivica, punch and kick him down to the ground till he was knocked senseless. His lifeless body was dragged through the door.
Meanwhile, the two other men forced Lilja on all fours on the bed, ripping apart her cotton gown, hand-made by her grandmother. She looked up at her children’s door, as the men commenced raping her. Zarko had begun to open the door further and Lilja violently shook her head, her hair hanging over most of her face, a Raggedy Ann doll at the mercy of bruts. Yet through the veil of her hair, Zarko and Zlata could seethe terror in her eyes and the tears rolling down her cheeks. Her face said, "Don't come here, don't go after your father, they'll kill him and then kill you, and then I'm left with nothing." That's why Zarko left Lilja to be - to be beaten and raped, as he closed the door and pushed Zlata away saying, "Mom doesn't want us out there. She thinks they'll kill us too sand I’m sure they will."
They closed the door ever so carefully, and made their way to the closet where they stored what little they had. There was their salvation. A door which was on the floor in the closet. I led to a storage space underneath the house. That’s where they hid for the next few hours. It was the place where both - Their parents said,” If we get bombed, or You hear bombing planes come, this is where you hide.” That day, they hid not from bombs, but from people of their own kind which if they caught them they would kill them. And that would be only if they were kind and in a good mood. stories were told of how these men would gut not only the adults, but also the children.
When Zarco and Zlata were positive the men were gone, a few hours afterwards (which to them it seemed more like a lifetime), they emerged from their hiding place, unscathed. They found everything overturned within the house, furniture broken, food-what little they had-splattered all over the floors and walls. Most importantly were their parents. Their mother was unconscious on her bed, naked. She was breathings. Barely. But alive. Scratches and bruises covered her body, and blood was caked on her mouth from the cuts her incisors made on her lips. Zarko covered her with the blankets she lay upon.
Next, they went in search of their father outside. It wasn’t hard to find him. He was perched on a post in their fenceright by their small shed. A stick protruded from his neck. There was no question, he was dead. They had stabbed the stick, which was a sharpened branch into his jugular. Underneath his body pooled every quart of blood which had filled his body.
Months passed, long and hard. Then the inevitable happened. The war broke out. How? By one of their own country men. It was the beginning of the true Balkin wars